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15 January, 2010

Good morning

My weeks are very variable from day to day, although they follow a predictable cycle.  Mondays start off as fun, light and easy, but the week gets successively more stressed with each following day, climaxing in Thursday which is the day I write this newsletter.

Unfortunately, very little of the newsletter can be done earlier in the week, because I simply don't know what I'll be including earlier in the week, and hot stories are evolving during the week.  To give you an appropriate selection of stories and up to date commentary, I can't start the newsletter until sometime Thursday; all I can do prior to then is search for and short list possible items for inclusion, and of course work on the weekly feature article.

Even more unfortunately, it generally takes way more than a regular 8 hr day to write the newsletter.  Which is why you may have noticed the time I send the newsletter is generally well after midnight.

I'm writing this not to complain, but rather than explain.  So there I was this Thursday morning, seated at the computer, fresh cup of coffee at hand, and just having turned the heaters up from their cooler night setting to a nice warm day setting.  When, all of a sudden, darkness, and (with the instant cessation of the heaters) a chilly silence too, punctuated only by the chorus of out-of-time plaintive bleatings from UPS units that had suddenly woken up.  Yes, a power cut, and on the worst possible day of the week.

Upon being told by the local power company that there was a 'scheduled outage' (which, while scheduled, had not been shared with me) and the power would remain out until 4pm, I tried to decide how best to respond.

No problem, I thought to myself.  I'll just grab my laptop and go work at the local mall, using their free Wi-fi.  I quickly went to save my open files to the internet via the excellent Sugarsynch software, but noticed the network connection was now down.  Ooops.  After some checking, I ascertained that one of the five steps the internet takes between the fiber feed into my house and my computer had a problem - its UPS had failed.

Did you know that the batteries in UPS units have a finite life?  If you are relying on a UPS, you need to check it every year or so, and either replace the battery or the entire unit when the battery ceases to work.  With a way too complicated path that involves different equipment, each with its own UPS, at five different places in my garage and house, one of the UPSs had failed and so my network was dead.

I was annoyed at not being able to transfer some of the material I needed, but no worries.  There would be plenty of other things I could productively do.  Except that, as I grabbed my sometimes trusty Dell laptop, I remembered only one of its two batteries were installed - the other bay had the CD/DVD drive in it, and I further remembered that the installed battery was half discharged and I hadn't recharged it.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I'm writing this from the mall, where, astonishingly, I couldn't find a single power outlet.  There used to be some in the floor, but they have all now had brass security covers placed over them.  Even the mall Starbucks, while offering Wi-fi, does not also offer laptop power.  So I'm writing what I can on less than one hour of remaining battery life, and then I'm not sure what I'll do.

What a funny world it is when it is easier to find a Wi-fi signal than a mains power plug.

Another thing about power.  Coincidentally I was reading this week about the need to 'condition' your laptop battery from time to time (and the same for all other Lithium battery using devices).  This involves fully charging the battery, then fully discharging it, then fully recharging it again.  Apparently the power management circuits inside our electronics 'forget' the maximum and minimum charge levels of a battery if they aren't reminded from time to time and end up underestimating the amount of remaining charge, turning off your laptop or phone or iPod because it thinks the battery might be flat, even though the battery still has a lot of remaining charge.

This is sensible good advice and you should do it when you notice your battery seems to be lasting for much less time than formerly.

Of course, it isn't only me with power problems.  Continental had to suspend flights at its Cleveland hub on Sunday after the airport suffered a widespread power outage early in the morning.  Apparently a transformer shorted out due to salt dust getting into its wiring.  Power was out for eight hours, returning at 2.30pm, but Continental's flights remained suspended until 6pm while the airline checked for any damage to equipment that was sensitive to and had been exposed to the cold weather during the outage.

Indeed, I'm stating the obvious when I observe that the cold weather has been wreaking havoc on airline operations all around Europe (and trains too, and doubly definitely road transportation, and even sea ferries due to icing of the waterways).  If international flights can't leave Europe, then the planes are not at the other end of each route to fly back to Europe either, so the problems have extended to the US and elsewhere.  Record cold weather, extraordinarily heavy snows, and the extended duration of both has in some cases drained entire countries of salt supplies, and airports have just not been able to cope with the snow removal and de-icing requirements, making for total misery.

These problems are being unfortunately exacerbated by a French air traffic controllers strike in Paris on Thursday.

Shall I insert the usual snide comment about global warming?

Actually, instead of snide comments, here's a thoughtful article pointing out, among other eye-opening things, that the Arctic ice cap, rather than shrinking and disappearing by 2013 as was earlier claimed by some, has increased in size 26% since 2007.

With that as lengthy introduction, can I turn you now to our Travel Insider tour of Scotland's Islands and Highlands in June 2010 - hopefully well after winter has turned into spring and summer (we'll be there for the summer solstice).  We've had six people register interest in the tour; if I can get four more people, then ten people in total will be enough for me to confirm the tour and guarantee its operation.

Maybe you've been to Scotland before, but chances are you've only seen the major cities and perhaps one or two of the out of city tourist attractions.  Have you ever taken a couple of hour ferry ride out to one of the islands, and have you ever really truly experienced the barrenness, the beauty, and the remoteness of so much of Scotland?

Have you ever found yourself in an area where the people around you are not talking English with a Scottish accent, but instead are speaking Gaelic?  And maybe you've visited a whisky distillery, but have you visited an Islay distillery?  And have you ever tasted the second best single malt whisky in the entire world (according to Jim Murray's 2010 Whisky Bible in which he rates/ranks 3850 different whiskies)?

You may have seen a Harry Potter movie, but have you ever taken the two hour mainline ride on the 'Harry Potter steam train' (considered the finest railway journey in the world)?  And so on, through a wonderful panoply of experiences that this tour offers to you.

So why not treat yourself to something different this early summer and come with us on this wonderful tour of Scotland's Islands and Highlands.

And, to whet your appetite for Scotland (perhaps in more ways than one) I decided to write this week on one of the things Scotland is justifiably famous for - Scotch whisky.

Like many other 'aspirational lifestyle' products and spirits in general, whisky - and particularly the more expensive single malts - is a victim of much hype and nonsense, and so I set myself the task of attempting to strip a lot of the nonsense from the topic and to give you a realistic explanation of what makes whisky good and bad, how to tell the difference, and some hard hitting commentary on the relationship between the price you pay for a whisky and its underlying quality.

I'll tell you this much up front - there is absolutely no relationship at all between the price and quality of a whisky; some of the very best whiskies in the world are priced in the low/affordable range, while some other pretentious whiskies that are outrageously priced (sometimes even for more than $1000 a bottle) are perceptibly inferior to the $50/bottle whiskies.

As is often the case, my short article/expose on the whisky industry grew somewhat, to a current 13,000 words.  Unfortunately, the sudden loss of power has prevented me from transferring this research onto the website, so I will complete this on Friday and send you a quick email to let you know when it is available for your reading pleasure.

I hope you'll be inspired by this commentary on whisky to come and see some of the distilleries and regions where whisky is made on our June Scotland's Islands and Highlands tour.

Dinosaur watching :  More December traffic results (Delta/Northwest with a 6.3% drop), and United also showed its total result for 2009 - with a major 8.1% drop in traffic for the entire year.

By comparison, Southwest showed a full year increase of 3% in passengers, including an increase for December.

Good news for Virgin America.  The latest challenges to its status as a US owned/operated airline have been rejected by the Dept of Transportation.  Details here.

And the airline is going to become a co-star in a new reality show about five flight attendants who work for Virgin America.

The focus of the show, to be called 'Fly Girls' is the massive amounts of melodrama surrounding the attendants who are single, 20-something, and live together in an LA crash pad while partying, dating and jet-setting around the country.  And it is almost predestined that we'll see publicity hound Sir Richard Branson put in an occasional appearance as a guest star. Virgin America says there is not too much branding in the show but they hope to build awareness and drive sales.

Virgin America currently flies in 10 markets and hopes to expand to another 40 destinations over the next five years.  Good luck to them if/when they do.

Some years ago A&E produced a documentary style series, 'Airline', about the people flying and working on Southwest Airlines.

The battle for the future of Japan Airlines continues, as does the airline's continued decline.  It now seems that JAL may refuse to accept money from either Delta or American Airlines, preferring instead a national bailout from Japan.  But JAL will still need to choose whether it affirms its current alliance with AA and the other Oneworld airlines, or if it switches allegiance to Delta and the other Skyteam carriers.  The term of art being used is that JAL will seek 'greater business cooperation' with one or the other alliance.

Now you know and I know that 'greater business cooperation' is a code phrase that means 'work together rather than compete' and we also know that the reason airlines do this is never, never, never for the benefit of travelers.  It is only and always and exclusively because such collusion rather than competition promises lower costs to the airline, but higher fares to us.

But in a strange piece of analysis, airline analyst Vaughn Cordle says that if JAL switched to the Skyteam alliance, it would get access to a larger route system, something which would help travelers (how, Vaughn?) and so therefore such a move should get antitrust immunity because it would benefit the consumer through - wait for it - greater price competition.

Ummm - how does an alliance of airlines that agree to jointly market and price their services increase competition?  And as for the greater convenience, if you're changing from one airline and airplane to another, and if your bags are being transferred for you, where is the extra (or lesser) convenience if the two airlines are in the same alliance or in competing alliances?

I can't understand or accept Vaughn's justification for and support of an expanded closer alliance between JAL and any other airline.

Talking about Delta, it seems it and Continental are the first airlines to start the latest round of increased checked bag fees.  The first checked bag increases from $15 to $23, and a second bag goes up from $27 to $32 (these fees increase still further to $25 and $35 if you pay the fees at the airport rather than in advance, online).  And don't forget, these are fees each way.  Double them for roundtrip.  Triple them if you're on a 'circle trip' with two stop-overs.

Other airlines are following suit, except for Southwest, which continues to have no checked bag fees at all.

And talking about airline analysts, here's a very sensible article that explains how and why it is extremely difficult to make broad statements about airfares increasing or decreasing - notwithstanding the propensity of some commentators to delight in making such statements.

It is a must read for anyone interested in understanding a bit more of the complexities of this issue.

British Airways continues to suffer terrible problems with its flight attendants.  This article's headline claims that flight attendants are deliberately wasting the wine served in business and first class as an oblique way of 'punishing' the airline for not being more receptive to their demands.

As best I can establish, the article is accurate in the comments it makes.  The situation is simple - BA's flight attendants are among the best paid in the industry (a comment to the article suggests BA flight attendants earn twice what Virgin Atlantic flight attendants earn), and over the years, have accumulated some extraordinarily generous allowances and other benefits on top of their flight pay - allowances that can put as much as $1000 or more extra cash in their hand per layover.

Previous CEOs at BA have passively capitulated to the airline's aggressive unions, and many of the airline's union members live in a make believe world full of expectations of entitlements unchanged from the days when the airline was government owned.

These days the airline is a private corporation, and must answer to its shareholders and the marketplace, and must observe standard industry practices and make a profit.  The featherbedding of the past has no place in today's much more lean economic times, and the flight attendants need to rid themselves of their out-of-touch beliefs about their entitlement to special treatment.  New CEO Willie Walsh is now attempting the very difficult task of moving BA's unions and their labor practices into the present day world.

My suggestion to the BA flight attendants :  If you really think you're worth everything you're claiming, surely you'll have no problems finding any other airline that will be delighted to give you everything you want.  But - as you well know - there are no such airlines any more.  So suck it in, stop seeing us passengers as your enemies, and start working for a living and be appreciative of the jobs you have.  There are plenty of others who'd love to take your jobs from you, and to gladly work at them wholeheartedly for much less money.

And my suggestion to BA management :  Your flight attendants are the public face of your airline and can massively influence the customer experience, particularly in the premium cabins.  You must stay the course and rewrite the rule book with your flight attendants, and insist on the highest standards of customer service and courtesy, and destroy the unaccountability of the 'we are better than you' philosophy of some flight attendants that selectively destroys what could otherwise be an excellent flight experience.

The FAA has expressed its public disappointment with what it claims to be industry foot-dragging over upgrades to the black box flight data and cockpit voice recorders that it is requiring be fitted to all new planes.

Back in spring of 2008, the FAA gave airplane manufacturers two years to upgrade the black boxes installed in new planes, requiring them to have better power supplies, longer voice recording capability, and to store more data on more airplane functions and conditions.

It seems that all airplane manufacturers have adopted a 'go slow' approach, with much handwringing and excuses being offered for why two years is not enough time to make the changes required of them.  For example, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, told the FAA that 'supplier and company resources necessary to make these changes have been significantly diminished by the faltering economy'.

The FAA, however, says the industry claims are little more than sham arguments to put off the safety upgrades.  The agency claims the largest commercial-aircraft makers around the globe had made a decision 'some time ago' not to comply, but only presented their claims much later in the process.

By amazing coincidence, according to the FAA's latest document, some of the industry requests for delay even use 'the same justifications' and also identical language.  The FAA said none of the requests indicate that manufacturers 'had properly planned for regulatory compliance'.  The FAA contends the industry requests for delays 'are not valid evidence that the industry is unable to comply, only that it has chosen not to'.

And so, after this stern riposte to the airplane manufacturers, is the FAA going to refuse them an extension of time?  For absolutely 100% sure, if the FAA sticks to its guns and refuses to certify any new planes after the April 2010 deadline for the new blackboxes expires, the manufacturers would amazingly quickly find that they could indeed comply.

Unfortunately, no.  The FAA abjectly fails to back up its strong words with any action at all, and in the process, rewards the airplane manufacturers' bad behavior and encourages further such delays on other safety issues in the future.  The FAA says it will now extend some deadlines until the end of this year and others until April 2012.

That is utterly shameful.  It is utterly shameful of the airplane manufacturers to delay these needed enhancements, and it is utterly shameful that the FAA now lacks the moral fiber to refuse to extend an already generous lead time.

Think what two years represents in the development/evolution cycle for complex equipment like cell phones, televisions, and computers.  If companies can completely re-engineer and massively enhance such equipment, why can't it do the same with black boxes - black boxes that were far from 'state of the art' two years ago in any event.

And it isn't as though the FAA is requiring pioneering new technologies to be developed from scratch.  Nothing of the sort.  It is just simply asking that the black boxes be given better power supplies and the ability to record more data.  Don't we all know, in our own personal experiences, that hard disks today can hold twice or four times as much data, and in less space, than hard disks of two and more years ago?  Where's the problem?

In truth, there is no problem, and if the FAA was willing to refuse to certify new planes without new black boxes after its first deadline expired in April, we'd see new black boxes appearing within days or weeks.  The FAA is being played for a fool by the airplane manufacturers, and the losers in the game are us as airplane passengers.

More details here.

Talking about airplane manufacturers, we've now had both Boeing and Airbus announce their sales and deliveries numbers for 2009.  Although sales numbers are surprisingly subjective, for the third year in a row, Airbus recorded more net sales than Boeing (both companies had significant numbers of order cancellations).  Airbus obtained a net total of 271 new orders, Boeing secured 142.  Airbus also delivered more planes than Boeing - 498 compared to Boeing's 481.  As a result, Airbus' order backlog shrunk by 227 planes and Boeing's backlog shrunk by 339.  Both companies have about 3500 airplanes on their order books at present - about seven year's production at present rates, so even if there were no new plane sales for a couple of years, they'd still have plenty of backlog.  More details and historical comparisons can be seen in the fifth part of my Boeing series.

Airbus remains hopeful of selling maybe ten more A380s this year.  We'll have to wait and see about that, there can be no doubt that currently, sales of this super-jumbo plane are lower than what Airbus had hoped for.

I had verbally rolled my eyes at Southwest hiding behind the non-event that was and is the H1N1 flu as a reason to remove its pillows and blankets from its flights last week (doing it for 'our safety').  Further confirmation -should any be needed - about the nonevent that is H1N1 comes from WHO this week, with the organization being accused by some of having exaggerated the dangers of the virus under pressure from drug companies.

Message to Southwest :  It is safe.  You can return the pillows and blankets to planes again.  Please.

Also last week, I'd commented on a risk we all take for granted when we travel on an overnight flight - the risk of someone rifling through our carry-on items in the overhead while we're sleeping in the darkened cabin.

I don't know if he is a reader or not, but we now hear of actress Cybill Shepherd's 22 year old son Zack, who was arrested at PHL on Tuesday after allegedly stealing a number of items from fellow passengers on an overnight UA flight from SFO.

Witnesses reported that Cyrus Shepherd-Oppenheim (popularly known as Zack) went through the carry-on bags of two sleeping passengers and lifted a Canon camera, makeup case, cash and a small travel bag.

I'd mentioned above that our Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour includes what some people hail as the world's greatest railway journey - the 2 hr 5 minute journey from Ft William to Mallaig in the Scottish Highlands, on a beautiful restored steam train, passing through scenes featured in the Harry Potter 'Hogwarts Express' in each of the movies.  This truly is a marvelous journey, through wonderfully beautiful scenery.  But it is also short - that suits our purpose, but for people seeking a more extensive rail experience, it pales in comparison to the multi-day luxury excursions offered in various countries around the world.

One of the countries with excellent train journeys is Australia - home of the world record holding 'longest stretch of straight railroad track in the world' along the Nullabor Plains (between Perth and Adelaide).  There's a new luxury train just starting up in Australia now, called The Southern Spirit.  It will run between Alice Springs, down to Adelaide, then around the coast to Melbourne, and up to Sydney and on to Brisbane.  A two week tour on the train costs A$10,590 (US$9,900) or A$14,000 (US$13,100) - per person - depending on the degree of cabin luxury you seek.

Should I point out that for the same price as you'd pay for just one person taking this train journey, you could get our Scotland tour for two people, complete with airfares to and from Britain, and pre-post accommodation, and a bunch of bonus extra train travel (maybe the Eurostar over to Paris, etc) as well, plus with generous spending money left over?

The American Dialect Society has named the verb 'tweet' as the top word for 2009 (this relates to the sending of a message on Twitter).  The word for 2008 was bailout and the 2007 word was subprime.

They also announced another verb as the top word of the last decade.  The verb is 'google' (as in searching online), and of course is directly derived from the name of the extraordinarily successful company, Google.

Warning - lengthy and wideranging article on Google follows - help yourself to the Page Down key if not interested....

There can be no doubt that Google was definitely the wunderkind of the 2000's, and its amazingly useful search technology has profoundly changed all our lives.  We are all now no more than a few clicks away from getting just about any type of information on any type of topic, thanks to Google and its searching.

Since its founding in September 1998, Google has rapidly grown to be the powerhouse that it is today, with a market capitalization of $187 billion (Microsoft is still significantly larger, worth $275 billion; but Yahoo is lagging way behind at a mere $24 billion) and 20,000 employees.  It has fitfully tried to diversify in many different areas, but 99% of its revenue continues to come in from advertising.

But Google is not omniscient or invulnerable nor even always right, facts which Google itself may be losing sight of.

For example, Google's new Nexus One phone has now been in the marketplace for a little more than a week, and it is already being greeted with - great success and positive user acclaim upon receiving their phones?  Actually, no.  Quite the opposite.  Two major problems rapidly surfaced.

The first issue is that the phone itself appears to have a problem, such that it does not reliably lock on to T-Mobile's 3G fast data network, but often drops the signal and falls back to the massively slower EDGE network instead.  This appears to be a problem specific to the Google Nexus phone, because there are plenty of reports of people with a Nexus phone and other 3G phones, with the phones next to each other, and the other 3G phones getting a good signal and keeping it, while the Google phone won't pick up the 3G signal or, if it does, keeps dropping it again.

This is surprising and disappointing.  Although the phone is Google's first ever phone, it was made for them by the very experienced high-end phone manufacturer, Taiwan based HTC, and HTC already makes other phones that use T-mobile's 3G network.  So one would have expected (and particularly at a $530 price point) to be reasonably sure of getting a reasonably reliable phone, right out of the box.  Apparently not.

The second problem illustrates some of the hubris that Google may now be experiencing.  Google decided that when you buy a $530 phone, you won't get any type of realtime phone support for it.  Instead, if you have a problem with your phone, you must post a message in a user forum and wait/hope for someone to reply with a solution, or, if you don't want to do that, apparently you can send an email to Google instead.

Well, that's about as stupid and unsatisfactory an approach to offering support as is imaginable.  And it gets worse.  Not only are user forums a very unreliable way of getting support, but it is reportedly taking up to three days for Google to answer support emails.  And, I don't know about you, but when I have a problem with my phone, it typically requires some interacting with a support person to solve - you explain the problem, they suggest a solution, maybe it doesn't work, or you need further help doing what they suggest, maybe then a derivative issue/question arises, and so on.  In other words, if you're relying on email support, there could be an exchange of five or ten emails prior to resolving the problem, and if each email from Google takes 3 days, you could be without your phone for a week or two, maybe even a month or more!

Hello, Google!  Anyone home?  People need their phones, and particularly need their high end smart phones.  They won't accept the inconvenience of email/forum type support, especially when buying an expensive $530 phone.  And - guess what :  The more sophisticated the phone, the greater the probability that a user will need some support to fully understand everything it does.

There's a possible third issue now starting to emerge too, with an occasional problem with the phone's touch screen.

Some people have tried to call T-mobile for support, particularly on the problem with the phone not reliably connecting to T-mobile's 3G network.  But T-mobile have told such callers that the problem is a hardware problem, and directed them to call HTC, the phone's manufacturer.  HTC in turn have told callers that the problem is a network issue, not a hardware issue, and directed people to call T-mobile.  Currently, no-one is taking responsibility for the problem or its solution.

It is interesting to contrast Google's approach to support with that of Apple.  With Apple, if you have a phone issue you can either call them, on the phone, directly, or call AT&T and if AT&T can't resolve the issue, they transfer you to an Apple representative who can.

The moral of the story seems to be that if you're buying a phone, you should always buy it from your wireless company, because then they can't refuse to accept responsibility for any support issues that arise.  The only exception to this being, of course, the exceptional in all positive respects iPhone, which you can safely buy either from Apple or AT&T and be assured of great support.

How is it that Google so seriously misstepped on this?

My sense is that Google is currently imbued with a hubris, a sense of unchallengeable destiny and inevitable success about itself in whatever market it chooses to get into.  While their underlying search engine and advertising business model is sound, some of the areas they are extending into these days have very weak links to their core business and all are not proving to be robustly profitable or successful for them.

It would be unfair and unkind to say Google has more money than sense at present, but it sure is acting like it at times.

One of the measures that Google came in for a huge amount of criticism was their moving into the Chinese market.  In doing so, Google voluntarily agreed to honor the Chinese government's rules on internet censorship - for example, a search for the phrase Tibet would bring up no hint of the controversial state of China's involvement in Tibet, and similarly, a search for the phrase Tiananmen Square would not make any mention of the massacre there in 1989.

But now, all of a sudden, Google has reversed itself, and has removed the filters and restrictions.  This is tantamount to closing down in China, and Google had been running down its operation there for some time, and now it seems likely that in the next few days the Chinese government will close Google down completely.

Google says it is doing this in retaliation for Chinese hackers who apparently tricked some Gmail account holders into revealing their passwords, and is also attempting to stake out the moral high ground for its actions.  And, to reassure their investors, they added that removing China from their business mix would have a negligible (less than 1%) impact on their bottom line.

But while Google's China actions may seem high-minded and praiseworthy, I see it as another symptom of their hubris - they're now taking on the Chinese government, and saying that dropping China from their business plan would have negligible impact?  Google needs to focus on its prime competence, and rather than buying all sorts of crazy new businesses for billions of dollars, businesses which sometimes never make money and are subsequently shuttered, they really need to focus in on China.

Why the importance of China?  Simple.  There are 400 million internet users in China, 200 million of which have broadband, compared to only 80 million broadband users in the US.  The Chinese market is two and a half times larger than the US market.  And Google says that China is not important to them?  It is true that Google's China operations are not proving significantly profitable, but that is because the Chinese web search engine Baidu holds a 60% market share - about twice the share Google has.

Interestingly there's another major market where Google is again a minor player - Russia, where Google's 23% market share pales alongside Yandex's greater than 60% share.  Might we see Google withdraw from Russia too?

Google has some serious priority and perception problems.

While the issue of censorship in China was something Google openly admitted, there's a really curious other form of censorship that you can see on Google without needing to go to China.

Go to their home page www.google.com and type in the two words "Christianity is" (without the quotes).  Notice how Google kindly provides a list of possible phrases for you to choose from, and notice how most of those phrases are insultingly negative to Christianity and Christians.

Now backspace out what you just typed, and instead type in "Islam is".  What do you see?  Absolutely nothing at all - no suggestions.  Google mutely sit there and suggests nothing.  If you wish, you could also type in "Judaism is" and even "Buddhism is".

So why does Google offer a range of insulting phrases for people researching Christianity and to a similar but lesser degree, for other religions too, but no phrases for people researching 'the religion of peace' (as its followers like to think of Islam)?  Why the special treatment for Islam?

Google said that the matter relates to a 'programming bug'.  Hmmmm.......  The programming bug remains unresolved as of Thursday night, about a week after it first made the news.

Oh, and talking about China, it announced plans this week to build the world's highest airport, the Nagqu Dagring Airport, in Tibet.  It will be at an altitude of 14,553 ft - a height at which pilots are required to use oxygen and people (who are not acclimatized to that height) have difficulty with even simple physical activity.  It is expected to open in 2014.

This will be interesting.  I am guesstimating that planes will need to reach almost twice the normal takeoff speed, and will need to in turn land nearly twice as fast too, due to the lower pressure at that altitude (17" of mercury compared to 30" at sea level); although the lower pressure may be partially compensated for if the temperatures are colder (air gets denser when colder).

This is just one of 97 new airports that China intends to build in the next ten years - that is very nearly one new airport a month.  And the reason for this airport is part of what is apparently China's plan to assimilate Tibet by virtue of encouraging the Han Chinese to move into Tibet, and also to try and disperse the Tibetans into the rest of China.

Some observers believe China is conducting a similar unofficial assimilation in the northeast along its border with Russia.  When you have 1.3 billion people, there can be a certain inevitability about things, including China's latest two economic milestones - becoming the biggest market for automobiles in the world (formerly this was the US) and also the world's largest exporter (you might be surprised to learn that this was not formerly the US - Germany held this distinction).

In 2010 China is expected to become the world's second largest economy (displacing Japan) and with GDP growth continuing at a greater than 10% annual rate, it is only a matter of time before it displaces the US to become the world's largest economy.  Details here.

And this is a market that Google dismisses as immaterial?  Don't get me wrong, I'm delighted that, for whatever reason, Google is now refusing to censor its searches in China, but to describe China as immaterial?  I think not.

Are cellphones good for one's health?  As longer time readers know, I believe cell phone radiation and its effects is this century's equivalent of last century's cigarette smoking and lung cancer controversy, with the same inevitability of an eventual widely accepted confirmation that cell phones are indeed dangerous.

But until that realization is finally accepted, here's an interesting article that, while agreeing with the premise that cell phone radiation does effect us, points out that not all these affects are bad.  Maybe some are good?

And, for those of us already seriously addicted to our phones, here's another new feature that may soon become the latest 'must have' feature and reason for us to upgrade yet again.  The feature is a built in video projector, albeit at present low resolution and very dim.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  As we all know, security screeners are a bit more jumpy and sensitive at present, after the crotch bombing attempt on 25 December.  But, jumpy or not, they are still far from providing a 100% effective screening service (is anyone surprised by this?).

So it is perhaps unsurprising to read this story of an airline passenger who realized, after going through security and boarding his flight, that he had forgotten to remove some ammunition from his carry-on bag.  For some strange reason, he then felt compelled to volunteer this information to a flight attendant, who told the captain, who returned the plane back to the gate so the man could surrender the ammunition to airport police and be rescreened (why rescreen him - if ever there was someone clearly not a terrorist, surely it would be him).

Oh - we're not talking about a couple of small pistol bullets here.  We're talking about full sized shotgun shells.

One of the more outrageous lies being offered by people trying to justify their bad decisions and slackness in not putting the crotch bomber on a higher priority 'do not fly' security list was that such lists are treated very seriously and there's a very formal process to go through before someone's name can be added to it.

And here's another assertion of the processes and parameters that must be observed before someone gets on that very special list.

The TSA itself says on its website that there is an untrue urban legend about an 8 yr old being on the do not fly list.  But, as this article points out, 8 yr old Mikey Hicks would sure like to be able to fly like other normal eight year olds.

What is the sense in now giving our date of birth when we book a ticket if 8 yr olds are still going to be treated as terror suspects?

There are apparently three different lists maintained by the various security services.  There's a 'do not fly' list of about 3400 names, a 'give a really hard time to before letting them fly' list (not sure of the size - officially referred to as the 'Selectee' list), and a 'put people's names on this list so you can say you've done something but we'll ignore the list and the names on it' list which variously is described as having 400,000 and 1.1 million names on it.  It is officially known as the Terrorist Screening Database.

The crotch bomber was on that third, most ineffectual, list.  Apparently he is far from the only known or suspected terrorist to be given lenient treatment.  This article quotes a report from the Inspector General of the Homeland Security Department that says 'Not all known or reasonably suspected terrorists are prohibited from boarding an aircraft, or are subject to additional security screening prior to boarding an aircraft'.

So why is 8 yr old Mikey Hicks being given such a hard time?

And here's the story of a tuberculosis patient who somehow managed to fly nonstop from PHL to SFO - a six and a half hour flight - despite being on a do not fly list given to the TSA.  The CDC says other passengers can relax, because the flight was less than eight hours in duration.

Yeah, sure, right.  I find that extremely reassuring.  Not.

Meantime, the TSA is saying that it is not its responsibility to enforce the no board list, but rather it is up to the airlines.  The airlines, in turn, say it is the TSA's responsibility.

Be careful what you say on your next flight.  We already know not to joke about guns and bombs, etc.  But apparently we now must be careful not to ask 'unusual questions' (whatever that might mean).  Here's a story that one wishes had a great deal more detail about how nine men were taken off a Canadian flight to Cuba last week because they asked unusual questions of a flight attendant.  The flight returned to the gate, the men were taken off the flight and interviewed by police, and then released free with no charges pressed against them.

But they were not then returned to their flight.  They had their airfares refunded instead, which is a very poor second best.  What if they had non-refundable hotel arrangements in Cuba?  Or business meetings to attend?  And now that they have to make alternate arrangements with zero advance booking, you can be sure that any other flights they can book/buy will be less convenient and much more expensive.

The controversy over the new whole body imaging scanners rages on unabated for another week, with more and more sources reporting on their limited effectiveness.  Far from being the 'silver bullet' solution to people hiding things about their person, it seems they are much less than infallible and can be fooled and cheated.

And it also seems that the TSA has been somewhat economical about the truth when claiming that the new scanners would not be able to record and store images.  Fancy that.

Here's an interesting article about the lack of radiation danger posed by such new scanners that you might find reassuring, and here's the TSA's own take on the topic.

Here's an excellent commentary on the impacts of the latest round of security procedures.

The terrorists are winning, without needing to actually destroy any planes.

Or, to put it another way, the TSA's unfocused and ineffectual response is punishing the innocent while offering no effective protection against further determined attacks by terrorists.

Lastly, some people buy a motorhome and travel around the country when they retire.  With the connectivity offered by cell phones and internet, it is increasingly practical to live for a while with no permanent address and still remain in contact with everyone and everything.

There's also a semi-joke about some people who retire and live, year-round, on a cruise ship.  Astonishingly it can sometimes be less expensive to live on a cruise ship than in a senior's home.

And now there's a third concept being tried, which combines elements of both concepts.  Utopia Residences is building a cruise liner that will sell half its cabins as floating homes for their individual owners; with the other half being sold to normal cruise passengers somewhat like hotel rooms.

 The permanent residences will cost from $3.7 million to $26 million.  $3.7 million will buy a 1,400 sq. ft. home with two bedrooms and two bathrooms and the $26 million will get you 6,600 sq. ft. with four bedrooms and three baths.  You would buy a cabin but not an ownership in the ship itself as they are not condos and residents would not own common areas.

In addition there would be fees for utilities, security, concierge services and access to private onboard clubs.  There will be three swimming pools, tennis courts, outdoor movie theatre, miniature golf course, shops, restaurants and a "lazy river" meandering around the deck.  The ship will dock and take in such events as the Cannes Film Festival, Rio during Carnival time and Sydney Harbor during New Year's Eve for the fireworks display.  Those on board will be able to attend sporting and cultural events worldwide.

The concept is actually not new, although the prices seem to set a new high benchmark.  Residensea has been offering a similar program since the late 1990s, with a ship that took to the water on its first cruise in 2002, but as I recall, their rates were (are) much lower.

Alas, you're not likely to find me owning a cabin on either boat.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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